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A Canadian soldier of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) 1st Battalion, A Company mans the gate at the Gombad safe house in the district of Sha Wali Kot in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, as two local Afghans walk by the main road in Gombad carrying shovels.Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail

Veterans Affairs says a hike to an income-replacement benefit for permanently disabled veterans was never intended to be applied equally across the board, and even if those at higher ranks will get a higher percentage increase, those who are paid the least will still be above the poverty line.

"When you map it out, each veteran's circumstances are different, for sure. And the net effect may well be different for individuals," a senior official at the Veterans Affairs told reporters at a technical briefing on Thursday. "But it was never the intention to say that everybody should receive the same increase."

To treat all disabled veterans equally under the Earnings Loss Benefit, regardless of how long ago they retired and at what salary, would be "very challenging," said the official who spoke on condition that his name not be used.

After years of lobbying by veterans' advocates, the Liberal government moved in the March budget to improve the benefit, which is intended to replace the income of disabled soldiers as they go through rehabilitation, as well as those who are "totally and permanently incapacitated" and can no longer work. Starting in October, the benefit will increase to 90 per cent of a veteran's pre-release salary from 75 per cent.

But because the government has also decided to set the minimum amount paid under the benefit at the salary of a senior private, which is a drop from the rank of basic corporal, where it has been set for the past five years, those veterans who make the least will get an increase of about 4 per cent, while those who make more will get an extra 20 per cent. That means former high-ranking officers could get tens of thousands of additional dollars each year, while veterans at the low end who are earning just over $42,000 will see an extra $2,070.

Those who stand to gain the least are mainly former soldiers who served in places such as Somalia, Bosnia, Yugoslavia and Rwanda and were discharged before significant increases to military pay were approved in the late 1990s and over the past decade.

The Conservative government recognized in 2011 that many veterans were not making enough under the Earnings Loss Benefit to put food on their tables, and set the base rate at 75 per cent of what then was being made by a basic corporal, which was about $40,000.

But when the Liberal government decided to set the benefit at 90 per cent of a veteran's prerelease salary, the Veterans' Affairs department determined that base could be lowered to the rank of private and all disabled veterans would still be above the low-income cutoff line, the official said.

"It actually meant that everybody, regardless of where you are in the continuum, would be brought up to a level sufficiently above the low-income measure that it was no longer required to use that arbitrary basic corporal level to calculate the basic percentage," he explained.

The Conservatives and the New Democrats have been challenging the government about the decision this week during the daily Question Periodin the House of Commons.

On Thursday, Alupa Clarke, the Veterans Affairs critic for the Conservatives, asked Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr to explain why he is "putting veterans at risk."

The minister replied that veterans have been asking for the Earnings Loss Benefit to be increased from 75 per cent to 90 per cent of a pre-release salary for a decade. "We moved on it and we delivered on it, increasing financial security for those veterans who are most disabled and those veterans who have served our armed forces with great honour and great dignity," he said. "We are there for them."

The government said in a news release last month that dropping the base rate for the Earnings Loss Benefit to the salary of a senior private was done in the interest of "fairness." To do otherwise, the government explained, would mean that some veterans receiving the benefit could make more than their comrades on active duty.

When asked why it is important that disabled veterans receive less than soldiers who are still in the military, the Veterans' Affairs official explained that the New Veterans Charter, which was enacted in 2006 and which incorporated the Earnings Loss Benefit, was aimed at getting disabled veterans rehabilitated and back to work.

"If the consequence is that you end up paying more to an individual in rehab than those still serving, then I guess there's a question about whether or not that would achieve the objectives of the wellness model," he said.

Getting back to work does not apply to the roughly 2,293 veterans who are receiving the Earnings Loss Benefit because they are permanently disabled. The Veterans Affairs official said those who will not recover from their injuries are eligible for other benefits – although he acknowledged that those other benefits can also be accessed by the higher-ranking veterans who will get the largest raises under the Earnings Loss Benefit.